Say Again? #38: ATC 104 -- VFR High Time

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Student and low-time pilots are expected to stumble a bit on the radio. But if you're a high-time pilot flying VFR, your bad habits (perhaps learned by imitating a smooth-talking jet jock) might be causing trouble for controllers and other pilots. AVweb's Don Brown reminds you that there's the book way, and then there's the way that could get a book thrown at you.

Say Again?

About that VFR "course" I wanted to write last month: Would you like to guess why I wanted to write it? That's right -- because I've been working a sector full of them lately.

I've aimed my previous columns about VFRs (mostly) at the low time pilots. This time, I want to talk to the rest of crowd. Those of you who have been flying for years (and, in some cases, a lot of years).

What's that old saying? Familiarity breeds contempt. I always figured old sayings got to be that way (old, that is) because they were true. It certainly is in this case. On any given day, I'd guess I only work about one or two students. Maybe another half-dozen VFR pilots that I'd consider "low time." The rest have been flying for quite some time. I have been working some of you for years.

Killin' Time

I'd guess the Number One time-waster I get from these pilots is the "let me get ATC's attention" technique. I got this transmission from an airline pilot last week. No, he wasn't VFR. He was up in the flight levels. Perhaps you remember me saying you can have good habits or you can have bad habits. Well, you can copy good habits or bad habits, too.

"Atlanta Center, Airliner 123."

This guy checked on the frequency about 30 seconds ago. In other words, the flight is still fresh in my mind and he's still near the border of my airspace. I know it might sound strange, but controllers spend a lot of time scanning their borders. If you're in the middle of my airspace I've already scanned for any traffic a half dozen times. I know you're separated from everybody. The borders are where new business and/or problems will arise. So this guy is right in the spot where controllers are paying the most attention.

Let's look at what he has conveyed in his message. He's calling me, Atlanta Center. Well, yep, that's who I am, all right. He's told me what his call sign is. Well, OK. I knew that too. What else? Nothing.

Airliner123, Atlanta Center, go ahead please.

"Roger, what are the rides like at flight level 390?"

Airliner123, Atlanta Center, standby.

Go Round and Round

Believe it or not, I've seen pilots have serious discussions about this particular radio technique. I guess it's just human nature to experiment, find something you think works, and cry, "Eureka! I've invented the wheel."

I hate to break it to you, but the wheel has already been invented. We've been talking on radios a long, long, time.

AIM 4-2-3. Contact Procedures

"c. Subsequent Contacts and Responses to Callup from a Ground Facility.

Use the same format as used for the initial contact except you should state your message or request with the callup in one transmission."

In other words, this isn't an initial contact. You already have my attention, so you should "state your message or request with the callup in one transmission." It would be: "Atlanta Center, Airliner123 request ride reports flight level three niner zero."

Thing One ...

Some of you aren't going to believe me. Some of you might think you know better than me. Some of you actually might know better than me. But I bet you don't know better than the book. Let's pretend you don't have my attention. Let's say I'm on the land line, and see what happens:

"Atlanta Center, Airliner123."

Tick ... tock ... tick ... tock ... tick ... tock ...

Calling Atlanta Center, say again.

"Uh, Atlanta, Airliner123, what are the rides like at flight level 390?"

Airliner 123 standby.

OK, that was four transmissions.

Now, let's imagine the pilot says it right, but I'm distracted. Maybe I'm thinking about how I'm going to pay for my kid's college, where I'm going on vacation next or how I'm going to pry those two airplanes apart.

"Uh, Atlanta, Airliner123, what are the rides like at flight level 390?"

Uhhh ... calling Atlanta Center, say again?

"Airliner123, what are the rides like at flight level 390?"

Airliner 123 standby.

Hmmm. We're still at four transmissions. That isn't any better than if I was on the land line. Let's see what happens when it works the way it's supposed to work.

"Atlanta Center, Airliner123 request ride reports flight level three niner zero."

Airliner123, Atlanta Center, standby and I'll find out."

How now, Brown Cow? Four transmissions when you try to get my attention first but I was already listening, four transmissions when you say it right but you don't have my attention, and two transmissions when everything works like it's supposed to work. Eureka! Trying to "get my attention" first doesn't save anybody any time, and if I am paying attention, we'll get it done a lot quicker. If you've got something that is out of the ordinary or really complicated, please, feel free to "get my attention" first. Otherwise, do it like the book says to do it.

... And Thing Two

I bet you're wondering when I'm going to get to the VFR part aren't you?

"Atlanta Center, King Air 34567, request."

Let's see ... I'm Atlanta Center ... he's King Air N34567, and he has a request. Do you reckon he wants to know what the rides are like at FL390 too? No, he's just using the same "Let me get the controller's attention" technique that he uses when he's IFR. It was wrong then and it's wrong now.

King Air 34567, Atlanta Center, say request.

"Uh, yeah, Atlanta, King Air 567 is off of Wilkesboro requesting VFR advisories over to Greensboro and we'll be climbing to eleven thousand five hundred, we're out of thirty four hundred now."

That transmission wasn't exactly a request like he was asking for. It was a request plus. This is a request:

"Atlanta Center, King Air 34567 request VFR advisories."

The other phraseology, "Atlanta Center, King Air 34567, request," is a request to make a request, I guess. Unless your request ... is to make this mess ... read like Dr.Suess ... I guess ... please read the book and stop trying to reinvent the wheel.

AIM 4-2-3. Contact Procedures

"a. Initial Contact

1. The terms initial contact or initial callup means the first radio call you make to a given facility or the first call to a different controller or FSS specialist within a facility. Use the following format:

(a) Name of the facility being called;

(b) Your full aircraft identification as filed in the flight plan or as discussed in paragraph 4-2-4, Aircraft Call Signs;

(c) When operating on an airport surface, state your position.

(d) The type of message to follow or your request if it is short; and

(e) The word "Over" if required."

In this case,

(a) Atlanta Center
(b) King Air 34567
(c) not applicable
(d) request V-F-R advisories.

And then I'll respond ...

King Air 34567, Atlanta Center, unable.

See how much time I saved? I didn't have to listen to all the flight plan information (that I'm not going to use because I'm too busy to use it) and we keep the conversation real short. Thus saving my time, your time and the system time. Who knows? If we save enough time, I might get off the dime. And wouldn't that be fine, if I didn't have to whine?

Detail Devils

I'm going to go into some details about how this works when it works right, but don't worry if you find yourself getting lost. That's part of what you need to understand about ATC. If you aren't a controller, you're not going to understand all of it. That's the reason we have rules ... relatively simple rules that you can follow.

"Atlanta Center, Centurion 45678 request VFR advisories."

If I hear that -- and I have time to answer him -- these are the actions that I will take. First, the pilot has made a favorable impression. That goes a long way in determining whether I have enough time to work him or not. Second, I will write down his callsign on a blank strip. Most Center controllers (at ZTL anyway) just use a blank pad. I picked up the blank strip routine from an Approach Controller I was watching work one day. Approach Controllers work a lot more VFRs than Center controllers and it made sense to me, so I adopted the technique.

The next step is to request a beacon code from the computer. I'll hit the "CODE" quick-action key, type N45678 and press "ENTER."

Centurion 45678, Atlanta Center, squawk 3421 and go ahead.

"Atlanta Center, Centurion 45678, two zero miles east of Barretts Mountain, level eight thousand five hundred, en route Asheville."

Although the AIM doesn't go into that much detail, as I wrote in ATC 101 that's the format that I like. It fits with the design of the Flight Progress Strips. As the pilot is talking, I'm writing the information down. It helps if I can write it down in a logical order. Don't get hung up on the format. Like I said, that's just my personal preference. But if you like to use the same format each time, I think that's a good one to use.

When I've finished writing the information down, I'll look 20 miles east of Barretts Mountain (BZM) and hopefully see the beacon code.

Centurion 45678, radar contact two zero miles east of Barretts Mountain. Maintain VFR, Hickory altimeter three zero zero one.

"Maintain VFR, altimeter three zero zero one Centurion 45678."

Quick Fixes

After that transaction is complete, it's time to get the flight plan into the computer. Again, I do this differently than most controllers at Atlanta Center. I know you're surprised. (Not.) Several years ago there was a "patch" put into the computer that allowed us to enter a quick and dirty VFR flight plan from the R-side (radar controller position). With just a few quick keystrokes, we could put a flight plan in the computer and it would generate strips throughout the system. I was as excited about having it as everyone else was.

It didn't take me long to figure out that the strips this patch generated were wrong. It didn't use the altitude of the aircraft. The program processed the aircraft (and generated the strips) at 10,500 feet. Basically, that means that everybody along that aircraft's route of flight got a strip. In addition, there isn't a table of speeds to match the type aircraft. All day long I work King Airs with a true airspeed of 120 knots and Cessna 150s with a true airspeed of 140 knots. And all day long I get time updates on every VFR going through my airspace. In other words, this "shortcut" -- that saves the controller using it some time -- ends up costing the system a huge amount of time. Sounds kind of like the way some folks file their flight plans, doesn't it? Sorry, that just slipped out.

Tedious Typing

Where were we? Oh yeah, entering a VFR flight plan. I slide over to the D-side (data controller) position (because there isn't any D-side) and type:

FP N45678 C210/A 150 BZM090020 EXX00 VFR/085 AVFR./.BZM090020..AVL

Press ENTER. No fuss, no muss. It's in the machine and it's in right. Oh ... in case you don't know what all that means:

FP: The computer code for Flight Plan

N45678: The aircraft callsign. Please note that it is (and is required to be) the full callsign.

C210/A: I don't really know what type navigational equipment he has but I can see he has Mode C. That's another thing about the "patch" I mentioned earlier. The version Approach Controls use puts everybody in as a /T (which would mean their transponders don't have Mode C).

150: As in knots. That's the true airspeed. The computer will estimate the ground speed according to the estimated winds at the actual altitude of the aircraft.

BZM090020: That is where the airplane was located when I entered the flight plan.

EXX00 : That's a computer code for the current time.

VFR/085 : The altitude (of course.)

AVFR./. : I don't know what his departure point was (and don't need to know) so we use that to "fill in the blank" for the departure point. Remember, this system was built for IFR aircraft.

BZM090020 : The beginning of the route of flight. This field must always start from the fix used above.

..AVL : Asheville, N.C. The destination.

And -- in case the really sharp people are wondering about the beacon code -- the computer recognizes that it already has a tracked target with that callsign and will assign the beacon code that has already been requested for that callsign.

The reason I bothered typing all that out is I want you to see the mental process that is involved. Typing a flight plan into the computer is just like typing anything else into any other computer. If you do it wrong, the computer will give you an error message. Haste makes waste. And you have to pay attention while you are typing. So, if I hear, "Atlanta Center, N12345, request," while I'm typing, I will probably miss the callsign. I may even ignore the call. At least until I'm finished typing.

D-Side Dummy

As I said last month, VFRs eat up a lot of time and attention. Back in the old days, we used to have a D-side who would type all this in. That was the controller who handled all the data chores (and a lot of other things) involved in ATC. In the new and improved FAA, we don't have enough people to keep a D-side at every sector. We put the limited amount of people we have at the sectors that are scheduled to have the most traffic. VFR traffic isn't scheduled. So the sectors where a large percentage of the traffic is VFRs don't usually get the D-sides. The ankle bone is connected to the leg bone ... the leg bone is connected to the hip bone. We can't handle nearly as many VFRs as we used to when we were fully staffed.

Another problem that you might run into on a long-range VFR flight is the same problem we have with many IFRs. The computer (and the controller) might not know your destination if it's long way off. Most controllers have their own methods of dealing with this problem. Many of them will ask you the Lat/Long. I won't do that but if you fly enough you'll probably hear it sooner or later. If you don't have GPS you might want to have a couple of VORs you pass by handy. For VFRs, we don't need the whole route. Just a VOR (or a fix/radial/distance from a VOR) every hundred miles or so.

Blast Off

For those of you who fly high-performance airplanes (the ones that climb really fast), you'll need to complete the whole process quickly for the maximum safety benefit. It's not unusual for these aircraft to get out of 10,000 feet before the whole VFR advisory transaction can take place. It's probably easier for me to use an example to explain.

When a jet departs HKY (Hickory, N.C.) VFR to the southwest, within 10 miles he's going to cross the SHINE5 arrival for CLT (Charlotte, N.C.). If he pops off climbing at 2,500 feet per minute, that gives us less than four minutes to get all this done. First, he's got to switch from the Tower, get established on the Center's frequency and make his request for VFR advisories, pass along the flight plan information, and then get identified. Then the controller has to get the flight plan into the computer and flash the handoff to the sector above him. All before the aircraft gets out of 10,000 feet.

The controller working the sector at 10,000 and below is only looking at other targets at 11,300 and below. In other words, he has his altitude filter limits set so that he can call traffic on an aircraft at 11,000 for an aircraft that he is working at 10,000. If you remember, 300 feet is the fudge factor on Mode C.

The point being, the controller working 10,000 feet and below doesn't see the jets descending to 11,000 inbound to CLT until the last second, when they descend below 11,300. If he doesn't see them, he can't call the traffic. This particular situation is well known to the controllers that work this airspace, and we compensate accordingly. I hope the example allows you to see the point, though. You'll want to be careful before you go blasting through too many altitudes too quickly.

Creating Monsters

That leads me to a subject I see being discussed among various pilots these days. It'd be nice to have the VFR flight plan in the computer before the aircraft ever left the ground. Being the clever individuals that they are, pilots are searching for ways to accomplish that. I hear that some people are using DUATS to file a flight plan and inserting "VFR" in the altitude box. Unless you know something that I don't ... don't do that.

Don't get me wrong. If the FAA has a formalized program to get aircraft requesting VFR advisories into the NAS computers without me doing it, I'm all for it. But I don't know of one. I've seen enough monsters created in my career. They're cute when they're young but they get ugly fast. And they are tough to kill. I see some serious potential problems using this method. If you see something in writing from the FAA that says you can, have at it. If you don't. I strongly recommend you stick to the way that's in the book.

I see that I'm out of time again. I hope you've found something useful this month. As I wrote last month, the ATC system is going to come under some significant stress in the next few years. We all need to re-examine some of our old habits and make sure that we are operating in the safest, most orderly and efficient manner possible. I hope this column will inspire you to do just that. And not just with your VFR procedures but all of them.

Have a safe flight.

Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC


Want to read more from Don Brown? Check out the rest of his columns.